Armsman of Joth -6-

What happens to someone when they become the thing they most fear and loathe?

Armsman of Joth

by Penny Lane

6: Meeting

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Maralin thinks the Duke wants to see him because of his knowledge of firearms. However, when he finally meets the Duke after a day's journey, he discovers the reason is somewhat different. A tense night is spent before the truth is revealed... he has some personal decisions to make.


Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

The embedded map is copyright (c) Di Wonder 2014 and is included with her gracious permission.



18th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

Maralin was roused at dawn. He dressed quickly and packed up his belongings before being taken to the cookhouse to eat a substantial breakfast. Captain Jarbon was there already.

"Are you well, Maralin?"

"Aye, sir, if a little tired."

"As I understand it, our ride to Thorn will take most of the day," the Captain said. "If you desire to sleep a part of the way, I will not object. I know that your days past have been difficult, sleeping in the fields, so you must take every chance for rest, as any armsman might."

"Thank you, sir."

"I do not know what my Duke intends for you, so it would be as well to arrive fresh, if you take my meaning. I have already dispatched a Messenger to bring warning of our coming. We will leave as soon as we have finished breakfast."

"Aye, sir. Uh, sir, if I may ask, where is Thorn?"

"Thorn is north-west of Joth, Sarjant, but further along the river. It is where the trade road crosses into Joth from Smordan. It is a small fortified town where the Duke presently has his headquarters."

"Thank you, sir."

The carriage was waiting with four frayen attached to the traces. Also waiting were ten fully armed and armored riders together with a coachman, one of the Tenants from the previous night and the other messenger. Jarbon got into the carriage, Maralin followed and the whole procession set off.

The first part of their route was back along the highway to Joth, but it was not long before they swung off to take a smaller road west, to travel in a part circle around the city. Maralin looked out the glassless window at the landscape, noting that it was much the same as that he had spent the last week crawling over. The major difference was that here, away from immediate danger, the residents and farmhands were visible in abundance, working the fields, feeding livestock or generally tidying up.

Around lunchtime their route crossed an east-west highway at an intersection where a small town had grown up. There was a rest stop here, everyone dismounted and stretched their legs before converging on a place that looked like a fast-food joint to take lunch. This was eaten at tables and benches under canvas awnings in front of the counter, despite the coldness of the season.

Their mounts were all exchanged and the party set off along another minor road, this time angling east of north. There were sufficient trees in the landscape that the walls of Joth could no longer be seen. Maralin dozed off, partly from the effects of lunch and partly from the long days spent scouting. Jarbon woke him as they approached the walls of a fortified town. It was by now becoming dark.

"Sarjant. Time to make ourselves ready to attend the Duke."

"As you say, sir."

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Maralin yawned and stretched, wondering what would happen next. He didn't expect anything bad but one could never tell. Through the gate, into the city, and Maralin saw that it was arranged differently than Galdarin, the streets being narrower and crooked so that one couldn't see any distance. The procession turned in the archway of a large mansion and pulled up in the courtyard. Once everybody had dismounted uniformed men came and took charge of the frayen and the carriage. A Tenant saluted before Jarbon.

"If you would follow me, sir."

Maralin followed Jarbon into the building. It was the first time he had been inside one of the mansions, having previously only seen rooms in the outbuildings of Falden's mansion that were used by servants. He took note of the rich decoration and furnishings as their guide led them through the building to a reception room. Waiting to greet them was a small group of people, all richly dressed. Their leader was a middle-aged man, well-built but not fat, with a homely woman by his side. Jarbon, as the senior officer of the party, saluted.

"Your Grace! We have arrived."

"Your journey was without difficulty?"

"As you say, Your Grace, thank you. The weather held and that made all the difference. May I present Sarjant Maralin, originally of Shicargo, now in Your Grace's service."

Jarbon stepped aside and Maralin braced and saluted, but the Duke held out his hand. After a moment's hesitation, Maralin shook it.

"Be welcome here, Maralin of Shicargo. This is not my home, I am merely a guest of Count Sherin of Thorn," the Duke gestured at a tall, thin man beside him, "while my own house is unavailable, but for tonight you will also become his guest."

"As you say... I'm sorry, sir. I don't know how to address you."

Wallesan threw a glance at Jarbon, who started.

"Your Grace, I must apologize! Maralin, the Duke is usually addressed as Your Grace, as you have heard me do. His wife the Duchess, should you have need to speak to her, is also addressed as Your Grace."

"Thank you, sir. Your Grace, it is I who must apologize. At home in Shicargo -" No. Not any longer, I don't think. I think I would like to call this place home. "- we don't have people like Dukes or Counts so I didn't know what to say. Your Grace, I'm not sure why you have asked me to come."

"I have recently hosted another visitor to this house," the Duke said, "and he became... interested in your activities, let us say. That visitor has presently gone..." the Duke waved his hand vaguely, "...elsewhere and should return tomorrow. He suggested that I bring you here for your own protection, at the earliest opportunity, though I will not speak of any reason."

Maralin bowed. "As you command, Your Grace."

"I must ask you not to say anything to anybody in this house, not even me or Captain Jarbon, before you meet... my other visitor. Captain, I must ask the same of you. Sarjant Maralin's activities, nor anything else he may have said, must not be mentioned to anyone."

"Of course, Your Grace. Er, Your Grace, what should we expect this evening?"

"I'll have a man show you to your chambers for tonight and you can bathe and change. Later, at the second bell of night, you will both join us for the evening meal. Sarjant?"

"Sir?"

"I'm aware you may not have brought sufficient attire with you, it may be possible to provide you with something suitable from the house. Ask the man who shows you your chamber."

"Aye, Your Grace."

Jarbon and Maralin were conducted upstairs and along a corridor to adjoining rooms. Inside his Maralin found a double bed, comfortably furnished, with a fluffy robe thrown on it.

"Master Maralin," the man said deferentially, "If you would undress and leave your clothes in this dressing room. When you are ready, pull that rope and someone will take you to the bathing chamber."

"Thank you. The Duke said something about finding me something to wear for dinner?"

"Of course, master." The man looked Maralin up and down before nodding. "I will bring a selection, some of which should fit you." He added, "Your other belongings will be brought up and put in the dressing room while you bathe, though I doubt you will need any of them this evening."

The chamber had an item Maralin had not encountered so far, a mirror. This was made from a column of four squares of polished and lacquered metal which had been fixed to the wall in a wooden frame. It was tall enough that he could examine his whole body for the first time in private.

This is what I look like now to these people. It isn't half bad, is it? I'm not surprised Renita was interested.

He peered at the slightly distorted image more closely. Strange, the face could be that of one of my brothers. What does that mean?

...And I'm a man. I've been a man for many days now and I understand that not all of them are like Benny was. Thank the Lord. It seems there can be good men just as there are bad women.

I suppose if I have to be a man, I've managed to look like a good one. I'm no movie star but I don't look gross either. With the amount of diet and exercise I'm getting, it should stay this way, too.

The bathing chamber had a sunken copper tub large enough for six but Maralin had it to himself. The water was hot and sweet-smelling and the soap, although hard, worked wonderfully to clean the grime of several days toil from his body. Dressed in the fluffy robe he returned to the chamber and waited for the servant to return. When he did so, he had an armful of clothes with him.

There was a clean undershirt, clean underpants and clean, well-made tights in a soft russet shade. There were several tunics of differing sizes and shades, and Maralin found one of dove gray which toned nicely against the tights. There were a pair of soft, indoor slippers and he retied his sash over the tunic.

What is it with these people and tunic and tights? Is this supposed to be Sherwood Forest?

"Master," the man said, "If you would sit on the chair, I will brush your hair."

Embarrassed at such attentions, Maralin sat and the man tidied his hair before leading him out of the room and downstairs. In a well-appointed dining chamber waited Count Sherin and a woman who was almost certainly his wife.

"His Grace has been most mysterious over you," Sherin said. "I regret I am unable to ask you the usual pleasantries that a host exchanges with his guests. I doubt not that His Grace has good reason for the restriction but it does make conversation difficult, does it not?"

"As you say... my lord." Maralin bowed to Sherin and his wife.

"I think I am permitted to present to you my wife, Countess Tiedra," Sherin said with a smile. "If you have any questions about your chambers or any other matter, ask any servant and she will make answer."

Like the Count, his wife was tallish and slender. Maralin saluted her and then inspected the long brocade gown she wore.

The women here wear some nice clothes. It is a great pity I'll never have a chance to try them out. It might have been fun to sashay round dressed like the Countess. That's one downside to being a man, I'm just not the right shape any more. I'd look stupid in a dress.

"Sarjant Maralin?" Countess Tiedra's expression was full of concern. "Is something wrong? You looked upset just then."

"Uh... I'm sorry, uh, my lady. I'm not used to such fine surroundings as this. I'm not used to gatherings where everyone's all dressed up."

She gave him a reassuring smile. "We understand, Sarjant. Be at ease in our home, we will not bite you. Ah! Here comes Captain Jarbon."

Dinner was an odd affair to begin with. It seemed like one of those 'elephant in the room' situations to Maralin but the initial wariness mellowed when they discovered that Maralin could talk about his experiences as a levy, which were after all the same as those of any other man who had been called to serve the Duke. Jarbon was interested to have feedback on his treatment of the motley variety of men who had been called to Galdarin's castle.

Soon it was time to retire and Maralin sank into the soft, comfortable mattress. After many days sleeping in haylofts and ditches, he was not about to pass up the chance for a good night's rest.


19th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The same manservant who had shown him his room roused him in the morning. The sun was up and Maralin felt extremely well rested. Maralin was astonished when the manservant again conducted him to the bathing chamber for another bath! He did not complain, though. The same man then expertly shaved him and made sure his hair was trimmed and well-shaped, before helping him to dress in fresh clothes.

Breakfast in the dining room, and there was tension in the air. Perhaps they were waiting for this mysterious visitor or there may have been another reason. Jarbon accosted him as they were rising from table.

"Sarjant, with the Duke's permission, I have realized that we may discuss what you did on your scouting mission, without compromising any restrictions His Grace may desire. You did, after all, no more than any other man-at-arms might, did you not?"

Maralin thought before replying. "Aye, sir, that is so. I may have to be careful how I answer, sir."

Jarbon nodded. "As you say, Sarjant."

"If I may fetch my notes from the last expedition, sir? We never had time to talk about that yesterday."

Jarbon looked at Wallesan, who nodded and then said, "Aye, of course, Sarjant. Hammand, go with him to his chamber and then bring him to the Count's study."

In the study sat Duke, Count, Captain and Sarjant. Feeling very out of place, Maralin began describing where he and his men had gone and what they had seen. Wallesan was very interested in the maps Maralin had drawn. Jarbon had brought his cleaned-up copy from Maralin's first outing but it was the second one which drew the comments.

"So, you speak our tongue but you do not write it," Wallesan said.

"As you say, Your Grace."

"Yet you are literate, you write in your own tongue, I deem. How is it you have not learned our letters, then?"

"Your Grace, perhaps I have done. My memory, it is very patchy as I explained last night."

"Of course. I apologize. On the other side of this sheet I see what appear to be lists of patrols and numbers at gate and on the walls. This is excellent work, Sarjant."

"Thank you, Your Grace, though it was the work of five men, not just myself."

Wallesan acknowledged that with a nod and then asked, "Jarbon, what do you think? The South-East Gate is the smallest, should we assay an assault, think you we may gain entrance?"

"Your Grace, as Sarjant Maralin has noted, the numbers of the enemy seem much reduced. They will not receive reinforcement from the east, for reasons we already know. We do not know if any more may come from Yod itself. We have reduced their numbers further in recent days, I wonder they still send out patrols."

"Aye. It is only to keep us away from the walls and, with their new weapon -" his eyes slid sideways to Maralin for a moment, "- to frighten us. Look to the numbers, Jarbon, and tell me what is possible."

Count Sherin spoke. "Your Grace, we must needs present a feint at some other gate, to make the real attack succeed."

"Of course, Sherin." The Duke nodded. "What I suggest is this -"

* * *

Lunch was another odd affair. Everybody had questions but thought better of mentioning them until the mystery had been resolved. The Duke, not wanting any accidental disclosure to happen, decided to keep Maralin close to him until their un-named visitor returned. This meant that Sherin and Jarbon also stayed with the Duke, which meant in turn that as Wallesan conducted his business he had an extra audience to consider. Much of what was discussed went over Maralin's head but he learned a great deal about the situation he had been thrown into since arriving on Anmar.

About mid-afternoon a servant came to say that the expected visitor had arrived in the courtyard. Wallesan immediately rose and the others followed him back through the mansion to greet his visitor. The arrivals had all dismounted by the time their hosts appeared, a group of men dressed in anonymous garb much like many of the townspeople Maralin had seen. Wallesan headed for a young man who appeared to be their leader.

"Your Highness, welcome back! I trust you suffered no problems on your journey?"

The young man removed his riding gloves and held out his hand. Wallesan took it and the two clasped arms.

"Thank you no, Your Grace. There was a delay at the ferry," the man said, shrugging. "Nothing unexpected. We were not attacked, challenged or even approached. It all worked just as you said it would, Your Grace."

"I am pleased to hear it, and that you are safe. Now," Wallesan turned and gestured at Maralin. "This man is the one of whom we spoke. His name is Maralin of Shicargo, if you recall."

"Aye." He glanced about. "Let us get inside into the warm, Your Grace. This is no place for conversations."

Once inside, the young man asked, "With your permission, Your Grace?" At a nod from the Duke he turned and asked Maralin directly, "I am told you spoke of guns. Are you of Earth?"

He knows! How does he know? Is he from Earth as well?

More importantly, can I trust him? I know nothing about him, not even his name. This whole setup could be very dangerous to me.

"Your Highness, I have been told I must be careful who I confide in. I'm sorry, I don't even know your name."

The young man smiled. "As you say! You are right, if you are the person I deem you may be then you are in great danger. I hope to convince you that here you are among friends. I am Prince Keren, son and heir to King Robanar of Palarand, and it is because an Earth person now lives in Palarand that Yod has taken Joth. I am traveling the lands of the Great Valley hoping to gather an alliance to make reply to Yod, to avenge the many deaths and injuries they have caused, all because of... one person from Earth."

"You are not the person from Earth yourself, then?"

Keren's smile became broader. "No, indeed! I will wed her at the Spring Festival. She will sit beside me when I become King."

A girl? And Palarand, from those maps that Count Sherin showed us, is way down the Great Valley. Was Yod really that desperate to get their hands on a girl?

Oh, well. I already jumped off one cliff. Time for the next one.

A single nod. "I am from Earth, Your Highness."

Keren held up a hand. "Say nothing more! Your Grace, if I may suggest, we three - and I'm sorry, My Lord Sherin, no other - should meet privately in some chamber where we may speak without fear of being overheard. Believe me, there are sufficient reasons for it."

Wallesan regarded Keren then swung to Sherin. "What say you, Sherin? I'm sure His Highness intends no insult but I deem events of recent weeks lead me to agree with him. Have you such a chamber?"

Sherin considered briefly. "Your Highness, Your Grace, you may use my study as you did before. That is in the older part of the building, the walls are of stone. I will give surety that no-one will overhear you. Highness, you may post your own men outside, if you so desire, to ensure privacy." He added, "But first, I would insist on you making yourself more comfortable, Highness. You have just arrived from a journey and are still attired for the road."

"As you say, my lord. Give me a hand of moments and I will join you there, Your Grace."

There was a bustle and the Prince and his men were conducted away by servants to change into more comfortable clothes. Sherin led the way to his study and ordered pel to be brought for them before he withdrew, since he knew that the Prince at least would require a hot drink after his ride.

Prince Keren arrived at the same time as the drinks. Once these had been distributed and the door firmly closed, he leaned forward, his eyes intent on Maralin.

"I wish to ask you first what may seem a strange question. On Earth, were you man or woman?"

Wallesan started and Maralin was shaken by the question.

He knows! How does he know? Oh, the girl? Perhaps..?

Maralin licked his lips, suddenly dry. "I was a woman, Your Highness."

Keren said, "She who I am to marry was a boy on Earth, about my age and build. You have had problems adapting?"

Wallesan could barely believe what he was hearing. He stared at Keren, and then Maralin, his eyes wide.

Maralin replied, "It has been hard, Highness. Some of it seems easy but... I never realized just how different men's and women's lives were, even on different planets." His eyes narrowed. "Is that true? Is this another planet? I wasn't sure if this was all just a nightmare and that I would wake up back on Earth."

"Oh, Anmar is real, all right! As for going back... Garia has been here some eight months now." He considered what else he should reveal. "Let me just say I'm not expecting her to go anywhere else."

"But... how? And why? Who did this to us?"

Keren shook his head. "We're not entirely sure. The how I may explain, if in scant detail, since I do not understand it. Consider, if this is another planet, a very long way from Earth, I am told it would be expensive to move someone such as yourself through the distance between. So what is done is to take the instructions that made your body, bring them here, and make another body for you to reside in."

"Instructions to make my body? Oh, you mean like DNA?" Keren nodded. "But, wouldn't that just make me a body like I had before?"

"That is indeed what is supposed to happen, I believe. It seems," Keren said, "that the device which makes the new bodies sometimes has a fault, and that fault may result in the body being different than what you once were. Garia was once Gary Campbell... Have you heard of the United States of America?"

"Yes! I am an American! Or rather, I was." Maralin paused. The conversation had suddenly plunged into the surreal. No wonder the Prince wanted to keep it private! He asked, slowly, "Or am I? Do I still exist on Earth, completely unaware of all this?"

Keren shook his head. "We don't know. Garia has spent months thinking about all this and not found many real answers yet. The main point is this, that you are here now, you are who you seem to be, a man of about twenty or a little more, from what I can see you are reasonably fit and healthy and likely to live a full life here. Duke Wallesan does not mistreat his people, you will be well looked after."

"Thank you, Highness. I'm not sure whether to be happy, sad, angry or what."

Keren grinned. "I think you may discover advantages to your new body. Garia tells me her memory is much better than before and you may also know any of the languages of Alaesia."

"Alaesia?"

"That's the name for the continent we presently reside on. We do not have knowledge of any other, but Garia assures us there are probably more in the oceans of Anmar." His expression changed. "You will be spared the Call of Kalikan, I deem."

"The... Call of Kalikan?"

"Kalikan is our largest moon," the Prince explained. "It travels round every thirty-one days or so, and thus a month is thirty-one days here. Every woman's cycle - in Earth terms her period, I believe - is tied to Kalikan. Garia's first Call was somewhat... spectacular."

"Oh. Oh!" Maralin was embarrassed. "I see. Poor thing."

"Aye. But she adapts, and I am sure you will also adapt." He grinned wickedly. "If you ever want to make a group of men run away from you, offer to discuss the Call of Kalikan with them!"

Wallesan had turned pale. "Highness, you but speak the truth! Shall you find another subject to discuss? If we may understand, if very hazily, the means of transference, then may we ask why? And by whom?"

Keren's response was slow, as if he considered every word. "This may be difficult for you, Your Grace, perhaps more so than for Maralin. There are... beings, let us say, that exist in the wider universe around Anmar. We may not see them and we have little idea what they do or why. What we do know is that there is a plan of some kind that involves many of the planets in this galaxy."

Wallesan interrupted. "If I may, Highness, what is a galaxy?"

"It is a huge collection of stars, Your Grace, like an immense whirlpool, which contains both Anmar and Earth. As I was saying, these beings have a plan, part of which involves transferring men and animals and possibly plants from one world to another to achieve some end we do not know. That is why Maralin and Garia were brought here, along with another, who was sent to Yod. That boy, who remained a boy during the transfer, is the reason that Yod have guns."

Wallesan started again. "You say that guns came from Earth, Highness?"

Keren made a grimace. "Yes and no, Your Grace. It seems, from our point of view, that everything is more advanced on Earth than it is here, so that they appear as if two or three hundred years in our future. What Garia calls a gun is so complex and deadly a device it could not be easily made here, not yet. But in the past of Earth they had simpler weapons, easier to make, and it is the design of these that Yod has extracted from the Earth boy they held captive."

"Ah, I see." Wallesan reflected. "Ah! I see! If Yod should learn of Maralin's presence here -"

"- they would strip their lands of men in an effort to capture him," Keren finished grimly.

Maralin protested, "But I don't know anything about guns! I couldn't tell them how to make them, I don't know how to myself!"

Keren shook his head. "Yod does not know that. You can be sure they would think you lying. You would be tortured for the information." His eyes, those of a young man but already showing the authority he would one day wield, bored into those of Maralin. "Do not undersell yourself, Maralin of Shicargo. When Gary Campbell left Earth and came to Anmar he had but seventeen Earth years and was still at what he calls 'High School'. He did not have the knowledge which any Master of craft or science would gain in a life's work but even as a girl Garia has already changed Palarand utterly after eight months and will change all Alaesia in time. Behold!"

The Prince reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a table fork, placing it on the desk.

"This," he said, "is the first thing she showed us. Do you not believe that there is an immense demand for such a small thing that every smith in Palarand must needs make them? A simple thing, and yet it makes the eating of any meal so much easier." He reached for a leather folder and opened it. "Another thing she showed us was paper. Here is some of the product of our first paper works, we could not function without the material any more. What else? Oh, printing, typewriters, telescopes, microscopes, lightning rods, float glass, steel made with coke, a new kind of saddle, steam engines... As I say, she has been here but eight months. Can you imagine what the next few years may bring? But back to your own circumstance, Maralin of Shicargo. Simply by coming from the same world as Garia, you know many things that would be of value to us, even if we cannot yet make them. That is what Yod wants from you."

Maralin was appalled. The mere fact of his existence here on Anmar automatically made him a target for anyone who wanted to grab him and apply pressure. He was chilled to think of the narrow escapes he had had out in the fields. What if the Yodans had grabbed him and found out where he had come from?

He licked lips suddenly dry. "Your Highness, what should I do?"

Keren shrugged. "This is a somewhat delicate matter for me, as you appeared in Joth and not Palarand, so you are a subject of His Grace and not my father." He turned to the Duke. "Your Grace, you may of course do as you see fit in your own lands and with your own people, but I would offer advice."

Wallesan appeared as shaken as Maralin felt. "Of course, Highness. I deem you to know more about this matter than anyone else in Alaesia. Speak."

Keren shuffled in his seat. Maralin could tell that he felt uncomfortable giving advice to the ruler of another country.

"Your Grace, when Garia first appeared, my father made her an oath, and it was this: If she chose to remain in Palarand, he would care for her as one of his own. Indeed, my parents have subsequently adopted her to make her position more secure. If she chose to depart, however, he would not stand in her way. Her presence on Anmar, like that of Maralin, is at the direction of other beings and not subject to the commands of Kings and Dukes. In fact she has decided to remain in Palarand, the choice being made without pressure from any." He smiled warmly. "She could do no else, since we both ensnared each other almost at the first meeting. For Maralin, might I suggest you offer the same choice."

Wallesan nodded. "Aye, Highness, it would be an honorable thing for me to do."

"Next," Keren continued, "I would ask you to keep secret... not Maralin's existence, since that is already known by many, but Maralin's origins." He turned to Maralin. "Where did you say you came from? Shicargo, was it? The name sounds as if it is a city in the far south, I deem."

"That's right, Your Highness," Maralin explained. "Chicago is actually a great city in the northern United States. I didn't know that there were places here which had similar name endings until yesterday."

"Ah." He grinned. "Providing you don't meet anyone from the south, I deem your origins to be sufficiently obscure to cause little undue attention in the Valley. If you appear as you seem to be, a foreigner from somewhere else entirely, no-one will question your hair color or your face."

His expression became more serious. "I would also suggest, Your Grace, that you consider very carefully what use those of Joth would make of the knowledge which Maralin bears. Obviously, anything unusual will draw the attentions of Yod, so until that matter is resolved I deem you should make no overt changes. I would also ask that you correspond with my father on this matter. Some of the knowledge Garia bears would be dangerous to our world if not managed carefully. Guns are but one example. He has set up a council to manage all the knowledge which Garia provides freely to us." He held out his hands, shrugging. "I may not command you, Your Grace, but together with my father you might consider a joint council to cover all knowledge obtained from Earth."

Wallesan let out a deep breath.

"Highness, you place a heavy burden on me. How shall I keep Maralin safe? I cannot bury him in a dungeon. Maralin, what say you?"

"Your Grace, I don't know your... court or your country. It seems to me that the first thing to do is to get Yod out of your city so that you can return to your rightful place. I agree that it wouldn't be wise for me to go out scouting like I have been doing -"

Keren's eyes narrowed. "What's this?"

Maralin explained the scouting expeditions he had been on and the introduction of camouflage theory to Captain Jarbon. Keren noticeably flinched when he described some of the near-misses they had had out in the fields. He looked thoughtful when Maralin paused.

"I think we may rest easy, Your Grace, on the matter of camouflage. Those of Yod will deem that you but copy their own ideas, they will have no idea that another of Earth faces them. But I interrupted you, Maralin of Chicago. You rightfully suggested that you should scout no more."

Wallesan stirred. "Highness, I deem we have no further need for such scouting. The information Maralin has brought us is of such a high standard that I am already considering how we may retake our city. From the look on Maralin's face, I deem you wish to take part in that assault?"

"I did, Your Grace," Maralin admitted. "Even an idiot can see that wouldn't be a particularly clever idea, if what His Highness tells me is true." He thought. "I'll be honest, Your Grace. I actually know very little about warfare. On Earth..." Now, how honest should I actually be? "...I worked in and around kitchens, both cooking and serving, before I met the wrong kind of man who mistreated me badly. If you wanted to keep me nearby but in a place nobody would think to look, I could work for you in your kitchen."

Wallesan coughed. "My kitchen is presently being despoiled by those of Yod, but I take your meaning. Were you but a servant in the kitchen or something more?"

"Both, Your Grace. I was trained as what we call a Chef but what you would probably call a Head Cook or something. I helped out in the kitchen of Master Falden's mansion where we were evacuated so I'm not entirely unfamiliar with what goes on here, though I still find the meats, vegetables and fruits to be strange."

Wallesan flicked a hand. "That may be so, but from our conversations yesterday and today I deem you to deserve a better place among my retinue than in my kitchen. I would place you on my personal staff. How say you?"

Maralin was overwhelmed.

It's like I've been strapped to a rocket since I arrived on Anmar. I'm so high up already my position bears no resemblance to what I was on Earth.

Okay, then. If that's how things are, then I'd be stupid to let the opportunity pass. I've been given a second chance at life and it seems a whole lot better than my miserable existence on Earth. Time to jump off another cliff.

Maralin relaxed his shoulders and straightened. "Your Grace, I am honored by your offer. Captain Jarbon suggested to me that he thought I would make a good officer, he thought I should take up a permanent position with your forces. I haven't had a chance to accept or refuse his offer or even think about it much. If you take me as though it was his recommendation, then I don't think anyone will realize there is more behind it."

"See?" Keren said to Wallesan. "Like Garia, Maralin has a different way of thinking that cuts to the essential detail."

Wallesan nodded. "Aye, Highness, so I see." He turned to Maralin. "Then you will join my retinue? I will make an oath that, should you so desire, you may leave Joth at any time without impediment, saving only one destination - I do not desire that you would travel to Yod, except perhaps as part of an invading army."

"I don't think you need worry there, Your Grace," Maralin replied dryly. "If you will have me, I would like to join your... retinue."

"Then that's settled," Wallesan said, slapping a hand on the desk. "Highness, does this satisfy you?"

Keren nodded. "Aye, Your Grace, I think I understand you, it is what I expected you to offer. I have no doubt Maralin will obtain the safety his circumstance requires as a member of your staff."

"Maralin," the Duke turned to him, "You may start immediately? I understand you have few belongings, having been thrown out of the city when it fell. Have you any reason for returning with Captain Jarbon to Galdarin before taking your post?"

Maralin thought. "Your Grace, I can start immediately if you want me to. Later, perhaps, when the city is ours again I ought to return to Galdarin for a visit. Those who looked after me ought to know what happened to me. As far as they know, I just disappeared off the face of... Anmar. I have friends at the castle as well, those who went into the fields with me. I don't feel comfortable just deserting them."

Wallesan looked at him sympathetically. "Maralin, you were once a woman, I understand you must view relationships differently than perhaps a man may do. Once the city is retaken I shall gladly honor your request."

"Thank you, Your Grace."

"There is one matter I would ask of Maralin, before we return to the others," Keren said. "Maralin, would you write a letter to Garia? I know you share a bond of Earth and country and you should perhaps correspond with her in the future."

Wallesan turned, concerned. "Is that safe, Highness? Even a letter carried by the Messenger Service may sometimes go astray."

Keren smiled. "It would do them no good if it did, Your Grace. I was about to suggest that Maralin wrote in English. That would prove each to the other that they both came from Earth. So far as we know, no other on Anmar may read such a script. Look!" He opened the folder and took out several sheets of paper. "Here is paper, I'm sure Count Sherin will not begrudge use of reed and ink, which I see on his desk. Write, Maralin. Tell Garia who you are and what your circumstances are and I am sure you will in time receive a like reply."

Maralin wrote, finding the reed an unfamiliar method of writing. There were blotches and more than one sheet of paper had to be discarded before a result was made acceptable to all. Wallesan folded it and enclosed it in an outer sheet which he sealed with his ring before handing the package to Keren.

"And now," he said, rising, "It is time for us to rejoin the others. The evening meal will soon be served, I deem, and we have an assault to plan."


10th day of Marash, Year 1175 since the Great Flood

There was a bustle of surprise as the mounted tengroup rode into the courtyard of Falden's mansion, led by an officer. Servants, alerted by the commotion, called Falden and he hurried to the door to greet his visitors in person.

The officer saluted. "Master Falden, you don't recognize me, do you? I am Maralin of Shicargo, now a Standard in Duke Wallesan's retinue."

Falden's eyes widened as he took in the quality linen surcoat and the Ducal sash, which had thin red edging to indicate his personal troops. His eyes flicked to the other armsmen, realizing that they were all from the Duke's bodyguard. Returning his gaze to the young man before him he took in the diagonal white sash, indicating a Tenant, with the thin blue edging showing he was a trainee at that rank, usually referred to as 'Standard'.

Finally the name sank in.

"Maralin? Maralin, aye! You are the young man that came here who was knocked on the head, yes? We wondered what became of you after you joined the levy. We thought you might perhaps have been injured or killed in the fight for the city."

Maralin's expression was grim. "Aye, that was a bad business, but war always is."

Falden said, "But I'm forgetting my manners! Shall you come in? I am anxious to learn why the Duke has sent one of his staff to visit a poor merchant like me."

A faint smile twisted the corner of Maralin's mouth. "I'm not sure His Grace would consider you poor, Master Falden, despite the recent unpleasantness. Aye, I will come in." He turned to the Sarjant. "Varran, let the men be at ease while I visit. The servants' dining room is there," he pointed, "and I'm sure someone will provide drinks and snacks for you and the men."

"Aye, sir!"

Falden led the way inside.

"I regret my wife Midrena is not here to greet you this morning, Standard -"

"Call me Maralin, please. This isn't an official visit. I've just come to let everybody know what happened to me after I left."

"As you say... Maralin. My wife has some kind of problem that affects women, she presently visits the Healers this morning which is why she does not greet you."

"Oh, yes, I remember. Healer Vannet, is that right?"

"As you say! Your memory, it is returned? You are whole again?"

Maralin made an expression of regret. "Sadly no, not entirely, Master Falden. Some of it has come back but I deem that there is much which has gone for ever. Fortunately it doesn't seem to bother me and His Grace has no problem with it."

"Here is my parlor, let us sit for a moment or two and you can tell me how we obtained our city from the invaders."

"As you wish, Master Falden, though I can't stay too long. I want to visit your kitchen and say hello to everybody there before I go."

"Of course! Here, take a seat, I will send for pel and pastries."

* * *

Work stopped in the kitchen when Maralin appeared, even though they were preparing lunch. Possen started the clapping and everyone soon joined in.

"I heard," Possen said when the noise died down, "only a rumor, mind you, that you played an important part in the retaking of the city. Is this so, Maralin?"

"Aye, Master Possen, that is true, though His Grace decided to keep me out of the main fighting. I won't talk about it today, though, because I'll put you all off your lunch. How are things here?"

"Much better since Master Stammand and his retinue left to return to their property in Joth," the Cook replied. "We are all relieved that the danger is no more." He waved an arm around. "As you can see, we have fewer mouths to feed now, things return to normal as they should. Have you seen Pilbar?"

Maralin nodded. "Aye, he is First Spear of the Galdarin Regiment now and unlikely to return here, I'm afraid. It seems he prefers the life of an armsman now."

"As do you, Maralin, or so it seems to me. You serve the Duke now?"

"Aye, I am one of his advisors." Maralin grinned. "Mostly in making those dishes I remember from Shicargo. They have become very popular in the city, so I'm told. Perhaps you'll have the recipes out here one day."

Renita walked in the back door, nearly dropping the basket of eggs that she carried.

"Maralin!"

"Renita."

He held up his left wrist with the favor still plaited around it, now discolored in places with blood.

"You wanted me to return safely, and here I am."

He walked over to her and took the basket, placing it on the table. Renita immediately wrapped her arms around his waist and looked up at his face. His own hands automatically went around her shoulders, holding her body close to his. She was small, soft, warm, round and alive. He reached a decision.

I wasn't sure what would happen when I saw Renita again. Prince Keren's advice was sound, though. There's definitely something there, although I would never have believed it when I left here to go and fight.

It's time I told her the truth and give her a chance to decide for herself whether I'm worth the effort or not.

I won't mess her about, she doesn't deserve that from me, but she has to know who I was and what I am now and what the future might be between us.

It seems I like jumping off cliffs...

He turned to the Cook.

"Master Possen, if I may, I'd like a few moments alone with Renita."

Renita looked at Maralin with surprise - and hope. Possen gestured assent and Maralin turned back to her.

"Renita, would you walk with me? We have to talk."




End of 'Armsman of Joth'.

Some of these characters may appear in other stories.



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